Another Czech producer with an international outlook is Vratislav Šlajer of Bionaut. His latest project is Kings of Šumava, an animated documentary film by the Irish filmmaker Kris Kelly. It follows the story of the former people smuggler Josef Hasil who helped people cross the Czechoslovak border, and the stories of several other protagonists whose lives were disrupted by the arrival of communism and border shutdown. Šlajer talks about the making of Kings of Šumava, a producer-driven movie, interconnectedness of the documentary world that allows easier access to new professional contacts, workshops and funding.
Could you outline the production history of Kings of Šumava? How did you go about securing funding for the movie?
Kings of Šumava received a development grant from the MEDIA Creative Europe and the Czech Film Fund. Later we also got a production grant from the Czech Film Fund, Northern Ireland Screen and Czech film subsidies. We attended the East Doc Forum, MIPCOM market, Berlinale EFM, Docs for Sale and others.
How did you start working with Kris Kelly? Why Kris Kelly and Kings of Šumava?
We met Kris Kelly at the 2011 Screenleaders workshop focused on the management and development of production companies. We then collaborated on several other projects. Once we were done with research, we offered Kings of Šumava to Kris. We had been looking for a non-Czech director, somebody who’d bring in a slightly different perspective on this Czech story. We knew that the movie would have to include reenacted scenes but we switched our initial feature concept to animation. Kris specializes in animation and cross-media projects, his film Here to Fall (2012) was nominated for a BAFTA award, and he seemed like an ideal choice. Moreover, his personal experience of living in Belfast provided yet another layer to the theme of borders.
In what stage did you join in the project as a producer? Were you involved in its development or script editing?
Kings of Šumava is really a producer-driven project. At the beginning, there was the book Návrat Krále Šumavy by David Jan Žák or, more precisely, David’s article for the Respekt magazine. We had the screenplay rights for some time and we were planning to make a feature film. Though this idea fell through, we still wanted to tell Josef Hasil’s story. We thought that a documentary film would be best, one that would go beyond the portrait format and explore not just Hasil’s life but also the full context of his actions.
Producer Danny Holman and I were in charge of development. Research and preparations were conducted by director Jan Gebert. We did an eight-hour interview with Mr Hasil, collected a large amount of archive material, witness testimonies, and so on. We worked with Jan Gebert to select three possible storylines and started reaching out to possible directors. Kris Kelly was not the first person we contacted but he certainly demonstrated he had a great grasp of the story. He found a positive angle, suggested using the storyline with Vlasta Hrašová who viewed Hasil’s life in a positive light and he figured out that the story about Hasil and his family could be framed using their meeting. The film then took on a more stylized shape, we settled on the right animation style that would be sufficiently specific but also work on a symbolic level to leave some space for the viewer’s emotions. Kris then wrote an animated documentary script, we created the visual concept and hired the cinematographer Jaromír Kačer who has a very painterly approach. Other key crew members included the editor Anna Johnson Ryndová and composer David Holmes.
It took us roughly a year and a half to secure funding. The film was shot in the Czech Republic and the United States, with post-production and animation completed at the Kredenc studio in Prague and at EnterYes in Belfast. As a producer, I was involved in story editing as well.
What was the most challenging aspect of Kings of Šumava for you as a producer?
This kind of cross-media movie is very demanding. The combination of documentary film and animation shifts a lot in production and we didn’t have much experience with this type of movie. In the editing room, you have to work a lot with a so-called animatic, i.e., a rough animation draft that lacks emotional impact and you need to guess the final outcome. Then the animation starts changing, which also changes the final shape and you need to adjust the editing again. We spent a fairly long time in the editing room and at times it was a bit of a hit-and-miss situation. In post-production, we had to do some reshoots and finetune the story. In the end, I think we were able to find the right approach to both the animation and the documentary layers but it was a long and exhausting – and often technically complicated – process. It’s very encouraging that after seeing our film, a lot of viewers couldn’t exactly identify which parts of the movie were fiction and which were non-fiction. They focus mostly on the story, which means that format mixing works.
Although our film received good feedback from funding representatives, it wasn’t easy to secure funding. For a long time, we weren’t able to present our project in a coherent shape – and an offline version without animation would have been difficult to understand for many of our partners. We couldn’t really give a clear presentation until the very end. Some of it was also due to the fact that it was Kris Kelly’s first feature.
That’s why we weren’t able to secure any broadcaster deals during production; our film was a high-risk investment for most. Looking back, I think it was better that our project was made without TV co-production because we still own the rights now. It took us five years to make it and the market is considerably different now. Today, there are more big players like Netflix that are interested in acquiring global rights, which actually puts us in a very good position. There are new possibilities. The initial risk was really to go all in with a Czech story told from an international perspective in a specific visual style. Although our movie tries to captivate audiences, it doesn’t do so using a traditional commercial form. As it turns out, strong projects with a local story and international accessibility are sought after now. I hope we’ve hit the mark.
How important was having your film in the Czech Joy section at the Ji.hlava IDFF? How do you see the role of this festival in shaping its distribution?
It was only the Czech premiere in Jihlava. We’re still waiting to have an international premiere sometime in 2020. Jihlava was supposed to test viewer reactions and professional feedback. We received the Student Jury Award and we found out that despite its historical subject matter, the visual style of our film is able to captivate younger audiences as well.
Festival programmers and sales agents in Jihlava also gave us a very positive feedback. We then prepared a more clearly focused international distribution strategy and improved our pitch in order to better highlight the movie’s strong points. Following another pitch at Docs for Sale in Amsterdam, we’ve been in talks with several distributors and there’s an interesting festival distribution opportunity, etc.
Jihlava is a very interesting festival with a steadily growing international reputation. Having our movie at the festival was crucial. At the same time, the festival would benefit from streamlining its industry section. The film selection is really broad and diverse, yet its emphasis on the Inspiration Forum and festival platform detracts a bit from the industry section, which is a shame. After all, Jihlava and Karlovy Vary are a key opportunity for Central European producers to pitch their projects for the first time.
Is it specific in any way to produce documentary films? Is it different from making features or TV drama in your experience?
Of course. But Bionaut approaches the development and production of documentary films in the same way as any other type of project. The key elements include script, visual style, meticulous development and distribution strategy. But there’s definitely a huge difference when it comes to distribution access and expectations. For many years, demand for documentary films has been dictated by broadcasters, which has made the whole process somewhat tedious and mechanical. People always talk about hard-to-sell topics or formats but nobody really stops to challenge these presumptions. There has been a number of creative documentaries that were instantly labeled box-office and audience flops. Luckily, the market has been changing, there are new possibilities now and soon people will realize that original, compelling stories are much more commercially viable than might be expected from broadcaster demand. It’s just important to tell them in an accessible way.
Has the restructuring of the Czech Film Fund in 2012 had a positive impact on theatrically released feature documentaries?
Definitely. There’s a stable system in place now that supports documentaries in development and production and, finally, we can carefully focus on each stage of production. We were able to increase budgets for documentary films. In the past, it used to be on average CZK 1.5 million, now it’s 3 to 5 million. We now have a lower ceiling for budgets to access subsidies – today it’s CZK 2 million, which means that the subsidy system is available to documentary films as well.
How difficult is it to get documentary films to viewers? Did you think about distribution and target audience during the development and production stages?
We always try to figure out our target audience in the development stage and then stick to it. Right now, we’re working with a 70-minute version, looking for ways to get our movie to cinemas, festivals and online platforms. We’re also planning a shorter TV cut. It’s great that the film works even for younger audiences. Our main target audience ranges from 18 to 40 years of age but it’s well received by younger people as well.
Do you think that the institutional support for documentary filmmaking in the Czech Republic is adequate? Is there anything that should change?
We receive stable funding from the Czech Film Fund, there’s also the well-run Czech Film Center. The Institute of Documentary Film is doing a great job, and dok.incubator, one of the best workshops in the world, is also Czech. We have some really interesting filmmakers, functioning funding support, producer support and education. The documentary department at FAMU is among the best as well.
Personally, I’d like to see the Czech TV improve its approach to documentary formats, whether it’s co-production docs or documentary series. Although the Czech TV has a great programming structure and fiction originals, it hasn’t yet figured out how to handle documentary films. There are frequent changes in slots, broadcast times, confusing selection of topics. Instead of focusing on non-fiction formats and programming for younger audiences, the programming concept of ČT2 has been stuck halfway. As a result, Czech documentary film lacks stronger support on the part of the public broadcaster. Milan Fridrich would probably take issue with that. Just to be clear – the problem isn’t the amount the Czech TV invests in non-fiction programs but the way it works with documentary projects. It’s one thing to invest in documentary series but it’s an entirely different thing to be able to sell its programs. Czech TV has managed just that with crime drama, comedy series, Sunday and Friday drama slots...But it hasn’t worked for non-fiction yet.